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RSA no two-horse race – whilst Sam’s the Man for the Stayers’

For today’s piece I’ve decided to preview a couple of Festival races, and in doing so, will focus on only those that I believe are realistic contenders.

The RSA Novices’ Chase looks to be a competitive renewal, with an Irish pair currently heading the market.

Monalee was a gallant runner-up in last year’s Albert Bartlett and has won two of his three starts over fences. His one defeat came when falling in a Grade One over the Christmas period, though he put that mishap behind him when jumping brilliantly on his way to winning the Flogas Novice Chase in February. It looked a strong renewal and though the pack were hot on his tail he battled bravely to claim victory. That success came at 2m5f, and there’s some concern as to his ability to see out the 3m trip at Cheltenham. He looked the quicker horse in the Flogas, but the following three were all gaining at the line. I’m not convinced that a three-mile slog with a stamina sapping hill to finish will suit him. I fancy he’d have won the JLT.

I’d argue that Presenting Percy was given a slightly inflated handicap mark over hurdles, following his victory in last year’s Pertemps at Cheltenham. He was certainly put in his place at Punchestown the following month when beaten some way out by Ireland’s best staying novice hurdlers. Nevertheless, he was always likely to make a better chaser and that appears to be the case. His last run was his best, when getting close to Our Duke in the Red Mills chase at Gowran (was in receipt of 7lbs). The trip was too short that day, and unlike Monalee, he looks sure to appreciate the rigors of the RSA. I still have a nagging doubt that he’s not quite as good as some believe.

Dounikos, trained by Gordon Elliott, and the Willie Mullins-trained Al Boum Photo, were hot on the heels of Monalee last time at Leopardstown. The pair clashed at Limerick over the Christmas period, with Dounikos appearing a fortunate winner as Al Boum came down at the last fence. The Mullins contender is only a six-year-old and whether he’s quite ready physically is a slight concern. I have a feeling that he’ll prove the best of these long-term and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him go very close.

Dounikos is my idea of the winner. He was squeezed out at the last in the Flogas before staying on strongly for fourth. He lacks gears, but both the trip and that stiff Cheltenham finish should prove ideal.

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Black Corton certainly deserves a mention having improved throughout the winter. He’s eight from 11 over fences, including a couple of wins at Cheltenham. He’s a slick jumper and has proved a gutsy stayer. But I’d be surprised if he has enough class to win this. Testing conditions will help his cause, but I’d rather have seen him in the four-miler.

I’ll be taking on the front two in the market and hoping that Dounikos gets the better of the younger Al Boum Photo.

Supasundae heads the market for the Stayer’s Hurdle, with Jess Harrington convinced that he’s a better horse this season. He won the Coral Cup at the meeting 12 months ago, before losing out to Yanworth at Aintree. He was also ‘done’ late on by Apple’s Jade at Leopardstown over Christmas, though the mare was in receipt of 7lbs, and is exceptional. The trainer believes that this fella needs better ground, and as an eight-year-old he’ll likely be at the peak of his powers. Some see the Apple’s Jade defeat as a negative, but I fancy trying to give that much weight to the mare is nigh-on impossible. Supasundae has a huge chance in this.

As does the Jedd O’Keeffe-trained Sam Spinner. His victory in the Long Walk Hurdle at Ascot confirmed his status as one of the leading stayers, and there’s no reason why he shouldn’t go well at Cheltenham. He was 10-lengths ahead of Unowhatimeanharry that day and looked full of running as he crossed the line. Six-year-olds have a great record in the race, and this fella will take some pegging back.

Yanworth looks sure to go close and I’m convinced that this is the right race for him. Solwhit and Nichols Canyon both stepped-up in trip to win this in recent years and Yanworth looks a similar type. He’ll be travelling powerfully turning for home, and it’s then a case of whether the stamina holds out, or the likes of Sam Spinner can draw the sting out of him.

The New One, though older, has a similar profile to Yanworth. He’ll likely take a lead from Sam Spinner and will be played as late as possible. Stamina is also a concern with this fella and having run at two miles for most of his career, he’ll need to settle off a slower pace. He ‘ran on strongly’ to defeat future Grand National winner Rule The World, in the Neptune of 2013, and at that point in his career you’d probably have said that three miles would prove ideal. I think we’d all love him to win. He’s certainly got a chance.

This is an incredibly difficult race to call. It should also prove to be a magnificent race to watch, with Sam Spinner setting the fractions, shadowed by speedier rivals waiting to pounce. I’m backing the front-running warrior to fend off all-comers in a thriller. It’s Sam Spinner for me, with Yanworth and Supasundae best of the rest.

Best of luck to those having a punt.

Festival Fever – Decisions to be made

With the Cheltenham Festival now less than three weeks away, news on intended targets for the leading contenders will likely be released daily.

Yesterday, it was several of Colin Tizzard’s team that came under the microscope. A decision on Cue Card is yet to be made, with the trainer saying: “Whether he goes for the Ryanair or Gold Cup, if you read Monday's paper it was all decided but it is not. We will let that run for a while. Jean (Bishop, owner) is coming down for three days to have a little holiday with the family and we will make a decision then for sure. There is no reason why we shouldn't go for the biggest one. Is that harder to win than the Ryanair? Possibly, yes.”

Of another Gold Cup contender, Native River, the Dorset handler said: “We are a lot stronger this time round. He has just had the one run, but we had him ready at Christmas to run. He was equally as good (at Newbury) as he had ever been. He has got a wonderful chance. I think at the moment we have got it dead right with him. We've had a little skirmish round Newbury and sprinted for half a mile up the run-in over the last three fences, and that should put him spot on. He was ready to run first time, but he is bound to improve, as every horse does. How much he has got to improve, we will find out.”

Though not quite certain, Tizzard appears to be favouring the Ryanair Chase for Fox Norton. Last year’s Champion Chase runner-up has been absent since a disappointing performance in the King George. The trainer explained: “After he ran in the Game Spirit last year he was lame in his back and we had to give him a few injections for a kissing spine. He had that after this year's King George. That is why he didn't jump at all. He is absolutely fine now. We missed the Game Spirit with pus in his foot.

“I expect we will go for the two-and-a-half-miler, unless Altior frightens everyone off, then we might take him on. He does look the business, but we must not run away from one horse.”

The trainer looks likely to send Elegant Escape to the RSA Chase, though the four-miler is still under consideration. Tizzard said: “This is a beautiful young horse. Black Corton is a very good horse, but he beat him at Newbury and we were closing on him fast at Kempton as well. I think Cheltenham will be right for him. At the moment we are definitely leaning towards the RSA, but if a top Irish jockey (amateur) became available, that might change it.”

Nicky Henderson has also been mulling over the fact that he has favourites for three of the championship races. The Seven Barrows handler said: “I think of the three, Might Bite probably has the most to prove, whereas the other boys are proven. He has got to stay and make sure no funny quirks develop.”

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He added: “It’s a nice position to be in, of course it is, and I’m a lucky boy. I’m fortunate these horses have come around at the same time.” Nevertheless, having such a powerful team heading to the Festival puts a huge amount of pressure on him and the team. He went on: “I’d rather have the pressure, or the responsibility of minding these guys, to get them there and get it right, than having nice peaceful nights and not worrying about it all.”

Alan King will be hoping for a better Festival than 12 months ago. Messire Des Obeaux, Who Dares Wins and Dusky Legend all managed third place finishes, but this year’s team looks stronger. The Barbury Castle handler has confirmed that Yanworth will line up in the Stayers’ Hurdle. He’d won a couple of races over fences during the winter and the RSA had looked likely. But having defeated Supasundae (currently favourite for Stayers’) at Aintree in April the team can’t resist another crack at the Irish raider in March.

The team have also announced that Who Dares Wins is being aimed at the Pertemps Final. Third at 33/1 in last year’s Coral Cup behind Supasundae, the six-year-old filled the same spot in a qualifier at Kempton in November. He ran a cracker in the Ascot Stakes during the summer and is sure to be suited by decent ground at Cheltenham. Expect him to be available at a tasty each-way price.

King is also set to parachute Elgin into the Champion Hurdle. This vastly improved six-year-old took the Kingwell Hurdle at Wincanton last week and has won three of his five starts this term. He’s no Buveur D’Air, but in a very open looking Champion, he’s possibly an each-way player.

One of the team’s most exciting Cheltenham prospects is the unbeaten juvenile hurdler Redicean. An easy winner of his two starts to date, he’ll be running this Saturday in the Adonis Hurdle at Kempton. It’s a recognised Triumph Hurdle trial, and this fella has huge potential.

All doubt over Samcro’s Festival target was removed on Monday when Gigginstown racing manager Eddie O’Leary confirmed the horse would head for the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle. “He runs in the Ballymore and that’s final,” said O’Leary. “We think he will be a nice chaser over three miles for next season so, even though he won the Deloitte over two miles, he won’t be running in the Supreme.” Now odds-on across the board, the undefeated six-year-old is seen by many as the banker of the meeting.

Another well-fancied festival contender is the Jed O’Keeffe-trained Sam Spinner. As short as 4s for the Stayers’, he was taken to Newcastle on Tuesday for a spin. The trainer remains pleased with his preparation, saying: “It was a strong canter really, just to get him away for the day and do something different. We were really happy with him. It wasn't a serious workout. He's very fit already. It was just to stretch his legs and go somewhere a bit different.”

The trainer added: “It's fairly straightforward what we'll do between now and Cheltenham. He'll have a few easy days after being away and then just one or two easy pieces of work at home. He'll have a school, maybe two, as we get closer to the Festival. He's basically ready now. I'm counting down the days - nervously and anxiously.”

The main event is coming around fast. Plans for many will no doubt change and then change again. We’ll do our best to keep Geegeez readers updated as the opening day draws near.

So Much To Look Forward To…

British Champions' Day is behind us and, for me, it was a bit of a bloodbath punting-wise. Such is the nature of the big meetings, especially towards the end of busy campaigns. Too many horses I wagered were either over the top or couldn't handle the presumed sticky, drying ground at Ascot. It's my contention that the going was what is known in France as 'holding', i.e. gluey.

Holding is called soft or occasionally good to soft here because it is when wet ground dries out. But it is very different from soft or good to soft when dry ground is rained upon. The absence of an additional going description for this is bonkers to me, and a change is long overdue. We are simply betting blind in such circumstances, as nothing in the form book can help us know if a horse will act on a surface on which - heavy and firm aside - the fewest horses can act.

If that sounds like whining, well, I guess it is to a degree. But too many of the top horses underperformed at the weekend to be easily written off as merely being 'over the top'. BCD's slot in the diary means it will always be prone to meteorological inclemency, but this is not about that: it's a more general point about the accuracy of going descriptions.

Frequently I - and many others with more experience and/or acuity than me - believe the clerks of courses mislead with their official going descriptions. Happily, measures are being taken to more closely scrutinize what is reported versus what comes to pass. But here, clerks are totally exonerated on the basis of their hands being tied to a band of descriptions which is insufficiently broad for its role. I don't see any change on this in the near future, but it is something I'll be raising with HBF.

As an example of 'breakout' thinking, the excellent Andrew Cooper, clerk at Sandown and Epsom, described a meeting as soft (holding) in March of this year, and went on to offer a very good description of it in this clip on RUK:

If only clerks were actually 'allowed' to offer such information officially. Closer to home, if only geegeez.co.uk could afford to hire a daily race reader to add an unofficial going description to our results and form. Sigh.

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Before we move on, there has been much animation regarding the performance of Cracksman in Saturday's Champion Stakes. His seven length victory over Poet's Word and Highland Reel was impressive, but arguably less so than has been reported in some quarters.

My view is that the run, whilst clearly extremely meritorious, was not superlative form to that offered consistently by Enable all season. That is not a view shared by one major ratings agency, who immediately put Cracksman at the head of their seasonal ratings.

His overall form creaks - Group 2 wins over second tier horses, defeats in two Derby's - in the context of Enable's thorough demolitions of genuine proven Group 1 animals all season long. Moreover, the horses he beat on Saturday are either just below top class themselves or were ill at ease on the ground, or over the top.

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Highland Reel, a class horse and genuine marker on quick, but one that hates such turf, plugged on for third, nearly snatching second from Poet's Word. Poet's Word, for his part, brought dubious top table credentials to the party: second to Decorated Knight in a very weak renewal of the Irish Champion Stakes earned him a six pound elevation to an official mark of 119. Any belief that he ran to 119, and Cracksman should be rated on a line through him, is madness to my eye.

There is little doubt John Gosden's three-year-old colt has improved as the season has progressed, but so too did his three-year-old filly. The depth of Enable's form in multiple Group 1 processions stands far closer scrutiny to the single G1 stroll of Cracksman, at this point in time and in the eye of this player, at least!

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Moving on, and the jumps season really ratchets up a notch in Britain today. Across the Irish Sea, the dogs have already been barking for exciting novices Death Duty and Samcro but, at Exeter this afternoon, it's the turn of an established player, Alan King's Yanworth, to shake off the last vestiges of his aestivation as he embarks on a chasing career in Exeter's Best Mate Beginner's Chase. He has a stone and a half class edge on his rivals on hurdle ratings, and I'm not seriously suggesting he'll get beaten today. But it will be interesting to see how this sometimes awkward hurdler traverses larger obstacles. Hopefully it will be the making of him.

Elsewhere, Anthony Honeyball, whose yard geegeez.co.uk sponsors, takes the wraps off the first of his young team for this term. Anthony has his biggest and best squad for the forthcoming campaign, and geegeez.co.uk syndicates have two horses in training with him this season, East Wing and My Dance. Today sees Acey Milan make his debut in the 'junior' bumper at Exeter, and it will be exciting to see how he goes.

Anthony was kind enough to do a full stable tour 'podcast' with me a month or so ago where he discussed his entire team. You can - and should! - check that out here. He has plenty more runners to unleash in the coming days and weeks, many of which are unfamiliar names, so do check that post out and arm your tracker accordingly!

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Finally, while turf flat racing in Britain and Ireland is all but over for the year, the international bandwagon rumbles on. For the first time for a few years, we have a correspondent covering the Melbourne Cup; and as always I will be covering the Breeders' Cup, which is now just ten days away.

Breeders' Cup 34 will be hosted for the first time in Del Mar, north of San Diego, on the left coast of America. The cast looks excellent - genuinely deep and cosmopolitan - and finding winners will be the usual challenge.

For those who like to play the meeting, I will have a Breeders' Cup Compendium available. It's a product packed with data, factoids and opinions, and you'll be able to get a copy in a day or two.

STOP PRESS: BREEDERS' CUP COMPENDIUM FIRST RELEASE IS AVAILABLE NOW - CLICK HERE

The nature of the beast - with information coming through bit by bit - means the BC Compendium will be released in stages, as and when pre-entries, draw positions and final preferences are known. Rest assured it will be the best Breeders' Cup product this side of the pond!

Enough for now - enjoy the racing at Exeter. What a fantastic time of the year this is.

Matt

Henderson Holds the Aces as Mullins Draws A Blank

The opening day of the Cheltenham Festival 2017 went to Gordon Elliott and Nicky Henderson.

Altior landed the Arkle Chase for Seven Barrows, forging clear from the last fence for a six-length success. He jumped beautifully throughout, and was pressing Charbel for the lead, when Kim Bailey’s chaser came down at the second-last. The fall left Cloudy Dream and Ordinary World in hot pursuit, though neither could match the favourite up the famous hill. The victory was workmanlike rather than flashy, though there’s no doubting Altior’s class.

Just over an hour later, the form of his Supreme Novices’ win in 2016 was handsomely franked, when Buveur D’Air ran away with the Champion Hurdle. Henderson trained the first pair home, with My Tent Or Yours running a cracker to finish runner-up. But the winner proved to be in a class of his own. Petit Mouchoir had set the pace, and heading downhill had several of the field struggling, including the disappointing favourite Yanworth. The Henderson duo launched their challenge turning for home, with Buveur D’Air showing a clean pair of heels to lead at the last. He stretched four lengths clear at the finish.

Nicky Henderson was winning his sixth Champion Hurdle, and said after the race: “He won his two novice chases, but I just knew there was more there over hurdles. It was a very open race, but I knew he was a very talented horse. I wondered if I'd got it wrong (switching back to hurdles) but it's proved the right thing to do and it's worked on the day.”

Willie Mullins could only manage fourth with Footpad, and his luck was no better throughout the opening day, with Gordon Elliott proving to be a thorn in his side. The pair are in the midst of a tense battle for the trainers’ crown in Ireland, and Elliott was once again on top, this time in an arena where Mullins has become virtually invincible.

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Melon was all the rage for the Supreme Novices’ and ran a cracking race, looking the likely winner turning for home. But it was Labaik, so often the bad boy on the track, that having decided to join in, showed he had the talent to go with the attitude. Elliott’s fella had refused to take part in four of his last six, but when it mattered most he tagged on to the back of the pack, gradually working his way through the field, and launching his challenge turning for home. He cruised to the front before the last under an ultra-cool ride from talented young jockey Jack Kennedy, and though Melon battled on gamely he was a couple of lengths adrift at the finish.

Elliott joked after the victory: “He hasn't jumped off the last three times and I was wanting to go to Naas on Sunday to spare the embarrassment of him not jumping off at Cheltenham. The owners, who are friends, wanted to go. He has an engine, this horse, and there isn't another that can work with him in the yard. I don't know where he'll go next.”

A thrilled Jack Kennedy said: “Words can’t describe it - I’ve dreamed about this day for as long as I can remember. Everyone wants more, but I'll be going home a very happy lad at the end of the week now, however things go.”

Mullins would have been confident of landing the Mares’ Hurdle, but again it was Elliott that put a spanner in the works. Limini and Vroum Vroum Mag were strongly fancied, but Apple’s Jade proved a gutsy winner, out-battling the Ricci owned pair in a thrilling finish. VVM looked to be getting on top at the last, but the winner found more for Bryan Cooper, pulling more than a length clear. The winning trainer looked chuffed to bits when saying: “This was her Gold Cup. I put the tongue-strap on her and I thought it would work out. I knew she'd have to improve a good bit from her last run but she did. She'll stay three miles next year and will go to Punchestown now.”

Elliott made it three for the day when Tiger Roll stormed to victory in the four-miler. Despite the marathon trip, the seven-year-old was cantering turning for home under Lisa O’Neill, and won comfortably. Edwulf proved the only challenger, but appeared to suffer a seizure after the last. He was quickly pulled-up, and at the time of writing is back in the stable, hopefully on the road to recovery. The victory was the second of the day for owner Michael O’Leary, who said: “Tiger Roll loved it. He has his own way of doing things. I don’t know what to do now for the rest of the week. Normally I start to get nervous by Thursday when we can’t find a winner any way. Two-in on the first day, I think I should fly home, as it’s not going to get any better than this.”

It could get better for Elliott, with several outstanding horses still to launch their Festival challenge. Mullins will be praying that a blank opening day is not a sign of things to come. He has Douvan going to post tomorrow.

Monday Musings: Being AP

AP McCoy aboard his 4000th winner, Mountain Tunes

AP McCoy aboard his 4000th winner, Mountain Tunes

Funnily enough, I never really fancied seeing “Being AP”, the documentary film about the period leading up to the 2015 retirement of Sir Anthony McCoy, which had its limited cinema opening and DVD release later that year, but was screened late last night on BBC2, writes Tony Stafford.

It was rather inconveniently placed if you were caught up with the competing snooker final on Eurosport which ended halfway through the McCoy film, but I compromised and saw the bulk of what proved compelling watching.

We knew for many years all about the almost manic drive which characterised 20 consecutive jump jockey championships, but saw here first-hand his total unwillingness to allow such trifles as injury to prevent it happening for the final time.

The domestic trappings of success and his high-level income as J P McManus’ retained jockey were evident as he forced himself through the various periods of rehabilitation onto yet another 200-plus seasonal tally.

This was the season (2014-15) of his fastest ever first 50 winners, designed, as he graphically says: “to sicken everyone else” and make them see the inevitability of the eventual outcome.

But McCoy admits to a glass half-empty mentality. Dave Roberts, his equally-driven agent, who slipped out of the shadows for a rare public appearance throughout the piece, tells him that it will be impossible for anyone to match his 4,000 winners.

“To get 2,000”, says Roberts, “Someone will need to get 100 winners for 20 years.” McCoy has doubled that, yet his slant on that is “yes, I have had more winners than anyone else, but more losers and more falls.” Always, for Sir Anthony, it has been a case of fearing not becoming champion. In this final season, the early dominance led to hopes of a first-ever 300-winner campaign, but when injury ruled that out, the eventual decision was to announce imminent retirement on reaching 200, as he did on Mr Mole on February 7 2015 at Newbury.

Roberts was on hand to escort him back to the paddock, presumably to make sure he would stick by the planned announcement, and sure enough, as Rishi Persad moved in, microphone pushed into the rider’s face for the first interview, remarking on “yet another 200”, AP said: “That’s the last one, I’m retiring at the end of the season”.

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For once the press corps was stunned. It was a big enough event – Betfair Hurdle Day – for the bulk of the media to be on hand, and the news was self-perpetuating, with wife Chanelle later fielding umpteen messages from friends as the couple drove home.

Clearly, Lady McCoy has had a serious challenge to compete with her husband’s riding and admitted selfishness – you have to be selfish as a sportsman, he maintains - but she has come through as an equally strong character.

Many of the nicest images are the way in which she supported him as he rode in races. “Come on Honey” was the usual exhortation from the missus as she watched races like the last Grand National on fourth-placed Shutthefrontdoor. On the day he received his 20th championship title at Sandown, she had both their children with her. In the midst of great emotion all around, the lasting image for me was her ginger-haired infant son Archie oblivious to it all in his mother’s arms, nonchalantly munching endless soft sweets.

Naturally JP McManus and Jonjo O’Neill were equal participants in this unique story and I expect they both approved of the outcome of what could have ended up an embarrassing sequence of wins and self-satisfaction. Sir Anthony McCoy’s character meant that could never be the case, and indeed the fact he was so worried about what retirement would mean for him also proves he does have some human frailties.

There were plenty of JP stars around over the weekend, with Yanworth not exactly stressing his almost-favourite status for the Champion Hurdle with a narrow win in Wincanton’s Kingwell Hurdle, but eight years ago Punjabi failed to win that race before beating Celestial Halo and McCoy on Binocular at Cheltenham.

Maybe more worrying for the owner was Jezki’s odds-on defeat by Tombstone at Gowran Park, the latter horse overturning previous form between the pair. Still, Forthefonofit, Dream Berry and Sutton Place, the last-named in a Grade 2 at Navan, kept the green and yellow colours to the fore. Maybe Jezki should try the three miles of the Sun Bets Stayers’ (ex-World) Hurdle, worth a highly acceptable £170,000 to the winner this year.

At nine, Jezki still retains most of his ability, but until Saturday, Zarkandar, another probable for the Stayers’ race, was looking an habitual non-winner, having gone almost four years since his last triumph in the UK. Paul Nicholls’ 10-year-old did win a French Grade 1, easily beating the talented if enigmatic Gemix at Auteuil more than two years ago, but his Haydock win on Saturday offers hope for one more big Festival effort. Winner of the 2011 Triumph Hurdle, Zarkandar appeared at the fixture for the next four years but was absent in 2016.

It must be hard for a smaller trainer to eschew running a decent horse at Cheltenham, but Tom Symonds, 32 today, who escorted Punjabi back to the winner’s enclosure in 2009 when joint assistant trainer at Nicky Henderson’s with Ben Pauling, will not be sending Don Bersy there.

The French-bred, another notable find for Claude Charlet and his France-based ally Joffret Huet, made it three wins in a row for Tom when collecting the Victor Ludorum at Haydock, giving 8lb to the runner-up.

“We didn’t enter him for the Triuimph, and he won’t go to the Fred Winter. We might look at Liverpool,” said Symonds, as ever under the radar. This observer hopes he will break into the next level and owners Sir Peter and Lady Gibbins, who also own the smart pair Hollywoodien and Kaki de la Pree, can help him with that ambition.

On a weekend of some successful and some less-so old-timers, the best performance by far was Cue Card’s 16th win in 35 career starts in the £85,000 to the winner Betfair Ascot Chase. The 2010 Cheltenham Bumper winner and Ryanair Chase victor four years later, it’s hard to see why he shouldn’t go close in a race he might have won a year ago bar a late fall. I trust Michael O’Leary is not too fussed that after his Kempton King George defeat by Thistlecrack, handicapper Phil Smith chose to drop Cue Card  from 176 to 170 before Saturday’s tour de force!

Lions run with pride at Haydock

A pair of lions roared at Haydock in the Grand National trial, but it was Vieux Lion Rouge that proved himself ‘King of the jungle’ on this occasion.

Prominent throughout, the winner and his main challenger Blaklion, moved to the head of affairs at the third last. The pair jumped impeccably over the final few fences, pulling well clear of the remainder. David Pipe’s Becher Chase winner came out on top, with the Twiston-Davies RSA winner finishing three lengths adrift. Vieux Lion Rouge was in receipt of a crucial 6lbs from the runner-up, and both will now be aimed at Aintree, where the weight differential is only 3lbs. Pipe’s eight-year-old shot to the head of the betting for the main event in April, whilst Blaklion, somewhat surprisingly to me, can still be backed at 25s.

Pipe was thrilled with the victory, and especially the way the horse pulled out more when pressed over the latter stages. Tom Scudamore was just as thrilled with the win, when saying: “He never used to finish off his races, but running in the National as a novice made a man of him. He was foot-perfect in the Becher and was foot-perfect today. He wasn't the greatest jumper before he ran in the National last year. We can head there with confidence and a few pounds up our sleeves, we hope.”

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Nigel Twiston-Davies had anticipated a huge run from Blaklion, and was not disappointed. Sent off favourite, the top weight lost little in defeat, and with his charge 3lbs better off next time, the trainer will be hopeful that positions can be reversed. He sounded bullish when saying: “We'll win the National and forget about being second today. His jumping was spot on at almost every fence and even when he was tired he put himself right, and that's what you need for Aintree.”

This looked a classy renewal, and the way the front pair pulled miles clear of the remainder, despite having plenty of weight to carry, suggests both will be serious players when Aintree comes around.

Age proved no barrier for Cue Card at Ascot, as he disposed of a bunch of handicappers in the Ascot Chase. Some had ‘crabbed’ his King George performance, despite him finishing second to the Gold Cup favourite Thistlecrack. There was nothing of that quality in opposition this time around, and he was rightly sent off a short-priced favourite. He demolished the field, and now heads to the Gold Cup at Cheltenham as part of a powerful Colin Tizzard trio. It’s a mouth-watering prospect.

At Wincanton, Yanworth captured the Kingwell Hurdle in workmanlike fashion. Many onlookers appeared unimpressed, and he drifted slightly in the Champion Hurdle market. Nevertheless, the main event at Cheltenham remains a wide-open affair, and Yanworth will be staying on strongly at the finish. His jumping may need to improve, though Petit Mouchoir looks the only horse likely to be stretching the field from the front. He remains a serious player in my eyes, and Barry Geraghty has a tough decision to make when choosing between him and race favourite Buveur D’Air.

McManus Launches Champion Hurdle Assault

The JP MCManus decision to switch Buveur D’Air from fences back to hurdles came as quite a surprise, though it shouldn’t have.

Nicky Henderson’s talented youngster looked sure to be heading for the JLT Novices’ Chase at Cheltenham in March, but suddenly finds himself a live Champion Hurdle contender. JP clearly believes that the Mullins contingent are vulnerable, and now is the time to attack with everything at his disposal.

Binocular in 2010, and Jezki in 2014 are the most recent winners of the Champion Hurdle to carry the famous Green and Gold silks, though it was Istabraq who famously carried the colours to a hat-trick of victories from 1998 to 2000.

This year’s Champion Hurdle is starting to resemble 2014’s, when McManus sent Jezki, My Tent Or Yours and Captain Cee Bee into battle against the Mullins favourite Hurricane Fly, and a young unexposed The New One. On that occasion, Jess Harrington’s charge defeated the more fancied My Tent Or Yours in a thrilling finish, with the ‘Captain’ back in fifth. ‘The Fly’ was then a 10-year-old, and though I hesitate to say it, was probably somewhat past his best. For what it’s worth, it’s my view that The New One was outpaced by the front two before staying on for a third-place finish. Understandably, Mr Twiston-Davies has a different opinion.

The field for this year’s renewal continues to evolve. Annie Power met with a setback and will not be there, and Mullins, though sounding confident, must be a little concerned over the wellbeing of Faugheen. The Champion Hurdle favourite, and winner from 2015, has not been seen on a racecourse for more than a year, and missed his intended return last weekend after a slight muscle issue. Chances are that he will now head directly to Cheltenham in March, without a prep-run. He’s a ‘tank’ of a horse, and is known to improve for a run or two.

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It’s hard to believe that Faugheen will arrive on the opening day of the festival firing on all cylinders. The question is whether a 90% primed ‘Machine’ will be enough to repel a McManus assault.

Yanworth was expected to deliver the sternest challenge, having impressed in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton. Alan King’s seven-year-old was due to run at Sandown this weekend, but has also met with a minor setback and may also now head straight to the Festival. In his ‘Weekender’ column, King, writing before the injury came to light, said: “He could have gone straight to Cheltenham, but he’s had only two races this season, and it’s a long time from the Christmas Hurdle to the Champion. It will do him no harm to have a bit more match practice.”

Unfortunately, yesterday JP McManus' racing manager Frank Berry announced: “He's just met with a small problem. He's tweaked a muscle in behind, it's nothing serious but he can't run this weekend. Hopefully it won't take too long to come right and we can get going with him again. Whether he runs again we'll just have to play it by ear, he could go straight to Cheltenham.” Again, by no means ideal, but at least Yanworth has had a couple of runs this winter.

In his absence, it looks like Buveur D’Air will now head to Sandown for the Contenders Hurdle. It was anticipated that Henderson’s hurdler, turned chaser, turned hurdler, would head north to Kelso in a couple of weeks, but a rather busy Frank Berry announced: “Obviously Buveur D'Air is in at Sandown, so it's still an option. We'll see how he is in the morning and we'll come to a decision then I'd imagine. Nicky had mentioned taking him up to Kelso, so we'll just see.”

On Twitter Henderson tweeted: “Change of plan! With Yanworth not going to Sandown, Buveur will now head there instead. Lots of chopping & changing this week!”

A trip to Sandown means that Henderson now has the top two in the market, with Brain Power already an intended runner. An impressive winner at Ascot prior to Christmas, I’m a huge fan of the horse, but this will come as a major test. He’s bred to become a chaser, and certainly has the physique to excel in that sphere. I’m not sure he’ll possess the speed to cope with Buveur D’Air on Saturday.

Decisions made by McManus have certainly given the Champion Hurdle picture a shake. In Nicky Henderson and Alan King, he has trainers that know how to win the main event in March. A McManus-Mullins clash is on, and let’s just hope that all the main contenders now arrive at the start on a thrilling opening day of the Festival.

Christmas Va Va Vroum

If the Irish don’t win it, then recent history suggests that Nicky Henderson will be victorious in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton.

Since 2000, Irish trainers have seven victories to their name, whilst the master of Seven Barrows has half a dozen. My Tent Or Yours made it four-in-a-row for Henderson in 2013, when edging out The New One in a thrilling finish. Willie Mullins has won the last two, thanks to the mighty Faugheen. Sadly he misses out on the chance of making it three on the bounce, though the Closutton team still have an outstanding contender.

Vroum Vroum Mag suffered her first defeat in two years when pipped at the post by Apple’s Jade last time on her seasonal bow. She ought to strip much fitter this time, and if taking her chance would take some beating. She finished five lengths clear of My Tent Or Yours when they last met in the Punchestown Champion Hurdle. She’s a high-class mare.

“She'll have to work again tomorrow. I think declarations are Friday,” said Walsh. “She seems well. She came out of her race nicely when Apple's Jade beat her, but there's obviously Yanworth and The New One. It's going to be a small field, but she looks to be in good order. I suppose when a horse gets beaten it takes the shine off them a little, but we still think she's a very good mare and she'll give a good account of herself getting 7lb from the geldings.”

JP McManus also has an outstanding record in the race, and has two chances of lifting the prize. My Tent Or Yours is yet to shine this season, though better ground at Kempton will certainly help the powerful traveller. However, the main hope for the Irish owner appears to be the Alan King trained Yanworth. He was one of last winter’s leading novice hurdlers, though looked sure to be stepped-up in trip for this campaign. Plans changed due to the exceptional form of Unowhatimeanharry, also JP owned.

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King said in his Weekender column: “Obviously it's going to be a big test for him, but we need to find out if he's a Champion Hurdle contender and I think this will give us some idea. There will probably be a few big guns in opposition, but Yanworth is well. We've not really trained him any differently since switching targets from the World Hurdle and he breezed on Saturday, which we were very happy with.

“The big question is whether he'll be effective over two miles at Kempton, but the one thing I can say is he's never been beaten over that trip over hurdles. I genuinely don't know how he'll fare, but we've got nothing to lose by trying so let's see what happens.”

He defeated Lil Rockerfeller on his seasonal debut, though had to dig deep to do so. This will certainly be tougher, but he’s unexposed compared to several of these.

Another for whom plans have changed dramatically, is The New One, trained by Nigel Twiston-Davies. With 14 victories from 22 starts over hurdles, this fella is considered a hero by his handler, and by many National Hunt followers. He looked set to be switched to fences, but stormed to victory in the International Hurdle at Cheltenham, when dominant from the front.

The Naunton trainer said of his favourite horse: “He was only beaten a whisker by My Tent Or Yours three years ago. He made a mistake at the last otherwise he probably would have won. He's in very good form as you've seen. We want to apply the same tactics as at Cheltenham, more forcing tactics. Sam (Twiston-Davies) will ride him this time, I'm sure. It was lovely to see him back at his best last time, although really he has never been away from his best.”

The Christmas Hurdle field is set to be completed by massive outsider Gray Wolf River and Dan Skelton’s progressive youngster Ch’tibello. The former will be hunting for prize money, and hopefully won’t cause a delay to the start of the King George, just half an hour later.

Skelton’s contender is of far more interest. He was impressive at Haydock last time in a small field on heavy ground. He had My Tent Or Yours and Old Guard behind him on that occasion. He clearly has plenty of speed, and is a big strong individual. Connections were worried about the ground at Haydock, and he’ll likely be more effective on a sounder surface at Kempton. He gave Altior a run for his money a year ago at Ascot, and may well prove competitive again.

Neptune Novices’ Hurdle Preview, Tips, Trends

2016 Neptune Investment Management Novices' Hurdle Preview

The Neptune Investment Management Novices' Hurdle, or Neptune for short, is the opening race on Day Two of the 2016 Cheltenham Festival. Its roll of honour is illustrious and includes future Champion Hurdlers such as Istabraq, Hardy Eustace and Faugheen, as well as other luminaries of the turf like Sabin Du Loir, Danoli, Brown Lad and multiple Festival winner, Willie Wumpkins.

Indeed scanning the full list of past winners reveals that there is rarely a moderate animal claiming the spoils in a race that often takes more winning than the Supreme. That the shorter novice heat is the opening salvo of the Festival ensures it always has a greater focus than might be deserved, but this event can pay to follow the form: backing every horse in every subsequent run from the last four Neptunes would have returned 56.76 points of profit.

Moreover, three of the four Neptunes have been profitable to follow, and even The New One's 2013 race has only leaked 2.35 points since. Yes, make no mistake, the Neptune is usually a deep and high class heat.

Neptune Novices' Hurdle Trends

To the historical patterns, based on 18 renewals since 1997 - 2001 excepted (no race, foot and mouth) - and with thanks to horseracebase.com for much of the data.

We start with the bleedin' obvious: last time out winners have a good record. They actually have a better record than their numerical representation would expect - 13 winners (72%), 34 placed (53%) from bang on half the runners.

Sadly, as a group, they've been cripplingly unprofitable to follow blindly, mainly due to the top of the market holding a near monopoly on the Neptune in recent times.

On the negative side, those outside the first three last time managed no wins since at least 1997 and just three places (one of which was by a horse that unseated its rider last time).

The age of Neptune entries is of mild interest. While none of the 13 four-year-olds to have a cut at this made the frame, and five-year-olds performed in line with their numerical representation, the six'ers did well: eleven winners (61% of the available wins in the sample period) and 30 places (56%) from 44% of the runners.

Where there are winners there must inevitably be losers, and in this case if you like a horse aged seven or above, history is against you. The last horse older than six to win the Neptune was French Holly in 1998, and the only other one was eight-year-old Brown Lad in 1974.

Good luck then if you like any of Vigil, Up For Review and Open Eagle - all 7yo's and, in fairness, all 33/1 shots currently.

15 of the 18 winners since 1997 were priced in single figures, and only 20/1 'mild shock' Massini's Maguire won at bigger than 12/1 during that time. We're not really looking for a huge outsider to suddenly step forward.

Moreover, of the eleven horses priced 9/4 or shorter, six won - for a small profit overall - and all eleven were placed.

Days since a run has no meaningful impact on performance, though it remains an almost universal negative in the Grade 1's to have raced as recently as the previous fortnight. Just two places from 25 runners in this sample, which is half what would have been expected on population (very small sample size, however).

42% of Neptune runners since 1997 had failed to win over at least two and a half miles. Between them, they claimed just four wins (22%) and 14 places (26%). One of those wins was by a horse who had won over a trip 100 yards shy of 2m4f.

Those to have won over at least two and a half miles, then, won 78% of the Neptunes since 1997 from 58% of the runners, and hoovered up 74% of the places. Proven stamina seems a pre-requisite.

A trendy type might have won last time, and be aged six, fancied in the market with proven stamina. Yanworth anyone? Hardly earth-shattering stuff, I concede, but don't shoot the messenger!

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Neptune Novices' Hurdle Preview

One horse holds its field in a half nelson with a week to go until tapes up: that lad is Yanworth, unbeaten in four this season and a runaway victor at Cheltenham when last seen. As a bumper horse, Alan King's son of Norse Dancer was good enough to run a close fourth in the Champion Bumper at last year's Festival. Checked on the home turn there, he stayed on best of all.

Kept to around two miles in his first three races this season, Yanworth oozed class in cosy wins over some fair opposition, most notably Charbel in a Grade 2 at Ascot. But it was when stepped up to the Neptune trip last time that he stamped his authority on the middle distance novice hurdle division.

A seven length verdict over the previously unbeaten Shantou Village with another almost unbeaten horse - Champers On Ice - ten lengths further back in third is outstanding form. If one can crab it, it could be argued that the heavy ground may have accentuated the margins and also could have been more to Yanworth's strengths than his rivals.

Perfectly true, of course, but he has plenty of top of the ground form to support this exciting visual impression, particularly that Champion Bumper run. His best NH Flat run and his best novice hurdle run have both come at Cheltenham and, with his versatility with regards riding tactics, it is very hard to see past him here, in a race where the cream has generally risen to the top.

If Yanworth is to taste defeat for the first time over timber, it will most likely be at the hooves of an Irish raider (given how far clear of his British rivals he's been). A Toi Phil, something of a 'now' horse for the Mullins juggernaut, could be the one. After an ignominious exit on his Irish debut just before Christmas, he was sent off at the juicy (hinidsight) price of 7/2 just after Christmas in a similar maiden hurdle event.

Value for more than the two lengths by which he beat Don't Touch It - two more back to Vigil in third, both winners since - he then bolted up in a Grade 2 at Leopardstown in late January from a horse called Acapella Bourgeois. That one franked the form in style by doing likewise in another Grade 2, at Thurles, under very similar conditions.

The question mark with A Toi Phil, apart from whether he's good enough, is whether he'll act on presumed quicker ground. Wins so far have been on soft and heavy, but his ol' man, Day Flight, has had winners on fast turf in a fairly truncated stallion career to date. Wullie's lad is open to stacks of improvement - more than most - and if he acts on the track and in the ground (rounded action offers plenty of hope) he looks a big player.

The Mullins stable has a phalanx of others entered here - twenty of the remaining 56 at time of writing are housed in Closutton - and attempting to form a Neptune hierarchy is complicated by owners and other race options. It looks like Yorkhill will go for the Supreme, and Bleu Et Rouge, in the same ownership as Yanworth, is presumed for the Albert Bartlett.

Bellshill looked wrong when labouring home behind Bleu Et Rouge in the Grade 1 Deloitte, but he'd previously bagged a top level prize over two and a half miles. He's 10/1 in a few places, which is not terrible value given he's likely to run here if anywhere at the Festival, but I'd want a little more meat on the bone after the Leopardstown capitulation.

Long Dog may also run here, and Willie might have to ride it himself such is the depth of cavalry he's loading up! A tough one to peg, he looked to be gobbling up some penalty kicks last summer, but has gone on to record back-to-back Grade 1's in the Royal Bond and Future Champions Novice Hurdles. That's not middling form, though the extended absence is a mild concern even after what was a hard campaign in 2015.

Ultimately, it has generally been the case that those at the top of the Wullie crop of entries have prevailed, in the Grade 1's at least. In fact I think it's the case that, excluding three runnings of the Champion Bumper (Briar Hill, Champagne Fever and Cousin Vinny) and Annie Power's last flight fall when set to win last year, the last Graded non-handicap that was not won by the stable first string was 25/1 Rule Supreme in the 2004 RSA Chase, a race in which the Wullie first choice was a 20/1 shot!!

In plain English, the best ranked of the Mullins horses in the market almost always wins when it's not a handicap or a flat race. That is a shortcut to defer delving deeper into the (relative) dregs of Team Closutton, and to hasten moving on.

O O Seven is a horse I've mentioned in passing in my Supreme preview. Nicky Henderson's six-year-old Flemensfirth gelding has allowed just one horse past in four hurdle starts. That one was Yorkhill, who I like a lot for the Supreme (given the game away there, no need to click that link now!). Yorkhill was only a couple of lengths the better of the Hendo hoss, with eight back to subsequent comfortable Betfair Hurdle winner, Agrapart.

At 25/1 NRNB, O O Seven could reward each way support, even though he has a lot to find with Yanworth on a literal view of the Champion Bumper form - like the jolly, he's come on in bounds since then.

Neptune Novices' Hurdle Tips

This may very well be the open and shut case it looks. Yanworth was a promising novice before a last day annihilation of a select field propelled him to the front of the market. He was actually available at 7/2 in the immediate aftermath of the race - well done if you got any of that - and now trades at a top price of 5/4.

That is at least fair, but as with all of the novice events, where form lines converge and most step forward on what they've displayed publicly previously, it is not banker territory (as if such a thing exists, Douvan aside, at the Festival).

Paddy has a 'without Yanworth' market in which A Toi Phil is 7/2 behind possible/probable non-runner, Yorkhill. I'm definitely interested in that, more so than the 8/1 each way. And O O Seven might be worth a very small dabble each way at 25/1 in a race that could cut up markedly between now and post time.

1 pt win A Toi Phil 'without Yanworth' 7/2 Paddy Power

0.25 pts e/w O O Seven 25/1 NRNB 1/4 1-2-3 888sport, racebets, Betfair sports

**

Other Cheltenham Festival 2016 Ante-Post Previews

All of our in-depth previews, trends and tips can be found here:

Cheltenham Festival 2016 Race Guide

Festival Previews Up And Running

The Cheltenham Festival Previews stepped up a gear or two last night, with attention turning to Dublin as Betfair hosted a panel of experts giving their opinions on the forthcoming Cotswolds festivities.

Ex-jock and a current jock in Andy McNamara and Davy Russell provided a useful ‘hands on’ viewpoint. The outspoken and ever colourful tipster Mark 'The Couch' Winstanley did his best to pinpoint value options. One of the best racing presenters on TV - At The Races Gary O’Brien, along with Irish Daily Star Sports Editor Brian Flanagan and Betfair's Barry Orr were also on hand. Finally, Champion trainer and Betfair Ambassador Paul Nicholls travelled over to complete the knowledgeable and rather entertaining panel.

The event was streamed through the Betfair website and created a decent buzz through social media, clearly attracting plenty of Twitter followers. The esteemed group were guided through the feature races on all four days by well-known Irish presenter Denis Kirwan; a regular at such gatherings.

Douvan appeared to be everyone’s certainty on day one of the Festival, along with Vroum Vroum Mag in the Mares’ Hurdle. No real surprise there then. Several of the panel voiced their concern over Annie Power’s ability to take on the boys in the Champion Hurdle. Though her talent is undeniable, a lack of experience at the highest level, coupled with little evidence of how she would cope with a championship two mile pace had several scratching their heads over her status as short-priced favourite.

Identity Thief appeared the overwhelming fancy of the gathered experts with his Fighting Fifth victory and subsequent promising performance behind Nichols Canyon sighted as evidence of his vast improvement.

The Neptune Investment Management Novices’ Hurdle was next on the agenda. ‘The Couch’ was unable to see past Yorkhill as the major challenger to race favourite Yanworth. He pointed to the victory at Sandown in the Tolworth as arguably the strongest novice hurdle form when looking at contenders for the Neptune. His thoughts were mirrored by Gary O’Brien who sees Yorkhill as a huge player. However, in recent days the word from the Mullins camp is that the horse is more likely to head for the Supreme, a decision that the panel appeared hard to fathom.

No More Heroes was another popular choice as a favourite that needed to be followed. Davy Russell was on-board Don Cossack in a racecourse gallop at the weekend, and had Elliott’s novice for company. He was clearly impressed with the way he pinged his fences alongside the more experienced Gold Cup bound stable companion. More Of That was put up as the main danger, though he could be on his way to the JLT.

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Russell also spoke of Road To Riches when the conversation turned to the Ryanair Chase. He was adamant that Noel Meade’s chaser had failed to see out the Gold Cup trip last March and that he would be a major player in the shorter event. ‘The Couch’ was pretty derogatory of the chances of Al Ferof despite money having come for the horse in recent weeks. Village Vic had a number of fans having impressed at the track throughout the winter. Smashing was another name put forward, though soft or heavy ground would enhance his chances.

When attention turned to the Ryanair World Hurdle, the panel appeared pretty unanimous over the chances of Thistlecrack. Davy Russell has him down as a horse for multiple bets, and Winstanley was in agreement that Tizzard’s impressive hurdler looks a certainty.

One favourite the panel seemed keen to take on was the Irish trained Ivanovich Gorbatov, currently at the head of the Triumph Hurdle market. There was a swell of enthusiasm behind Paul Nicholls’ Adonis winner Zubayr, and he again voiced his opinion that the horse has similar qualities to previous Triumph winner Zarkandar. Davy Russell felt that the use of a pin was the only way of finding the winner in what appears a wide-open renewal.

One of the winter’s on-going debates resurfaced when the panel turned their attention to the Gold Cup. The Don Cossack or Don Poli dispute splits opinion among those that love and follow our great sport. O’Brien and Andy McNamara were dismissive of Poli’s chances in favour of Don Cossack. Mr O’Brien went as far as to say that he would find it unbelievable should Bryan Cooper choose to ride the RSA winner over Gordon Elliott’s beast.

Davy Russell’s opinion was probably the most pertinent as someone within the Gigginstown camp. He rode Don Cossack in the aforementioned gallop and Waxed lyrical of the horse’s stature, enormous stride and flowing action. However, he also mentioned the Gold Cup trip being ideal for a strong stayer such as Don Poli. Interestingly, he also said that if Ruby says Vautour will stay the trip, then the horse almost certainly will.

Don Cossack remained the popular choice of the majority of the panel, in a renewal that has captured the imagination for so many reasons.

The panel were asked for their handicap fancies, with Nicholls given the opportunity of going through many in his care. One that caught the eye and ear was his latest French import Diego Du Charmil. He’s been kept for the Fred Winter Juvenile Hurdle, a race the champion trainer won last season with another from France in Qualando.

For many out there, these gatherings serve little purpose. Often the panellists simply churn out the same old snippets that were already public knowledge. Some jockeys may fear upsetting owners or trainers and therefore have reservations when asked to reveal any juicy pointers. Trainers are also likely to focus on their own yard, and in fairness probably have little time for anything other.

Nevertheless, for many the previews are a great way of cranking up the excitement levels as the Festival approaches. Last night’s Betfair panel proved entertaining and informative. Davy Russell is often brutally frank in his analysis and delivers his opinions in an engagingly entertaining and droll manner. In contrast Gary O’Brien gives a thoughtful reasoned approach to his comments in keeping with a man who has a wealth of knowledge to convey.

I’m of the opinion that these previews are an enjoyable part of the Festival build-up. To be able to watch the event live was a huge plus, and though I’m still left scratching my head over the Gold Cup, I have a few more names to ponder over, as the main event looms large.

Hells Bells-hill – Saturday Shocker

Saturday proved something of a reputation buster, with upsets on either side of the Irish Sea causing inevitable shockwaves on the Cheltenham Festival markets.

Ireland had more than their fair share of shocks with numerous hotpots hitting the buffers. The opener at Leopardstown very much set the tone for the afternoon. Ivanovich Gorbatov had started the day as the Triumph Hurdle favourite on the back of an impressive hurdle debut at the track over Christmas. Strongly fancied to follow up, he struggled to go with the strong pace set by Jer’s Girl and Let’s Dance. In trouble turning for home he failed to land a blow and finished 10 lengths back in fourth.

The Willie Mullins trained Footpad stayed on best of all for a surprise win, further strengthening the juvenile stronghold of owners Simon Munir and Isaac Souede. They now have three of the top six in the Triumph Hurdle betting, having taken first and second in last year’s renewal. The winner is built for fences and appeared well suited by the testing conditions. Quicker ground at Cheltenham would prove problematic, though he’ll be flying up that hill.

Let’s Dance stayed on well for third in Saturday’s race, despite having done much of the donkey work up front. Her action suggests she’ll be suited by a sounder surface and I was taken by her performance. She’s lightening quick over her obstacles and looks to have a bright future.

The demise of Ivanovich Gorbatov will have surprised many, but he had surely been over-hyped on the evidence of just one run. Bellshill on the other-hand had a strong bumper campaign and several impressive victories over hurdles on his CV. Challenging Yanworth at the head of the Neptune market, he was sent off strong favourite for the Deloitte Novice Hurdle. Nevertheless, he too had his inflated reputation punctured when trailing home third, behind surprise winner Bleu Et Rouge and Gordon Elliott’s Tombstone.

Sent on by Ruby Walsh he led until approaching the final flight, but had no answer to the powerful finishes of the front two. Tombstone loomed large at the last, but it was the McManus owned runner, also trained by Mullins, who found most for pressure, scooting clear for victory. He’d run with great promise when finishing behind Tombstone and Long Dog at Christmas, but was ridden more prominently this time round by Barry Geraghty.

The jockey is already set to partner Neptune favourite Yanworth at Cheltenham, but Mullins suggested that race would be the likely target for Bleu Et Rouge, saying: “He ran very well here at Christmas and he learned an awful lot so after talking to Mark (Walsh), Barry went out there with a bit of confidence. The horse looked a bit green going to the last, but Barry thought if he could keep a little bit up his sleeve for after the last, he might beat Tombstone, which he did. All the jockeys are saying the ground is very testing so another two or three furlongs of the Neptune might suit him.”

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It was a taking performance from an improving sort, though the win probably only served to strengthen the confidence in a Yanworth success in March. The result was however another boost for the form of the Future Champions Novice winner Long Dog. He’s likely to head for the Neptune with spring ground at Cheltenham sure to suit.

Gigginstown jockey Bryan Cooper had voiced concerns over the testing ground as the Irish Gold Cup approached. And so it proved when race favourite Road To Riches appeared unable to cope with the testing conditions, finishing a well-beaten second to last year’s winner Carlingford Lough. Noel Meade’s charge lacked his usual zest and though showing plenty of guts to be involved in the finish, never looked like coming out on top.

The race appeared to be going the way of Gigginstown’s Valseur Lido, but a last fence blunder plunged Ruby Walsh into the dirt, leaving the way clear for the strong finishing McManus owned runner.

After the race a deflated Meade spoke of Road To Riches, saying: “Watching the race I was never happy and Bryan came back and said the horse was never really carrying him. We always feared the ground and maybe that contributed to the way he ran. We'll see how he comes out of it and then make plans.”

On Sunday the trainer appeared more enthusiastic when saying: “He seems to be OK, which is good. I think they just went too quick. He never got into a rhythm, and was back and forth a bit in the race. He was only just beaten in the Gold Cup last year so I think he should go back there again. Good ground would help him but it's up to the owners which race they want to go for.”

It’s clear that Meade feels his horse has a chance in the Gold Cup, but the owners have Don Poli, Don Cossack and Valseur Lido all vying for a place on the starting line. Road To Riches has proven himself capable of winning over shorter, and the bookies probably have it right with the horse as short as 5/1 for the Ryanair.

Many pushed him out to 20s for the Gold Cup and they were doing the same with Peace And Co after his lacklustre performance at Sandown. Henderson’s Champion Hurdle hope has done little right so far this winter, and this latest setback surely ends all hope of a win at Cheltenham in March. Or so you would think.

Despite another desperate performance his trainer refuses to throw in the towel, and a check on Peace And Co’s breathing is now on the agenda, with Henderson saying: “It's been a bit of a hotch-potch preparation in that, as you know, we were trying to run a fortnight ago and although we mended it pretty quick, when you miss three days you might as well miss a week. It wasn't ideal. I'm not making excuses; he will come on for the race quite a lot. But that's not the point really - he switched off, he jumped well, he travelled well, he just didn't come home.”

Time of course is running out with The Festival just a month away. The Irish are coming, and they’ll take some stopping.

Tombstone Takes Dead Aim at Prestigious Deloitte

It’s one of Ireland’s most prestigious and informative novice hurdles, with numerous winners striking gold at the Cheltenham Festival a month later.

The Grade 1 Deloitte Novice Hurdle is run over a distance of 2m2f and takes place at Leopardstown on Saturday. Established in 1987 the race has gone to some of Ireland’s great hurdlers. Danoli took the event in 1994 before heading for Cheltenham and winning the Sun Alliance (now the Neptune). He became something of a hero in Ireland and went on to win the Aintree Hurdle in 94 and 95.

Istabraq took the race in 1997 before also stepping up in trip at Cheltenham when winning the Royal & Sun Alliance. He went on to dominate the two mile division with many experts viewing him as one of the all-time greats, if not the greatest ever hurdler. He won the Irish Champion four years running and took the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham three times.

In 2002 it was Like-A-Butterfly taking the Deloitte before winning the Supreme at The Festival. The wonderful warrior Brave Inca completed the same double in 2004. Forpadydeplasterer took the race in 2008, but could only finish fourth when stepped up at Cheltenham for the then named Ballymore Properties Novices’ Hurdle. He did return to Cheltenham a year later however, and was victorious in the Arkle Chase.

Dunguib was billed as the next Irish hurdling sensation when sweeping all before him, including the Deloitte, on his way to contesting the Supreme in 2010. Though running a cracker at Cheltenham he was outgunned by Menorah and Get Me Out Of Here, when many felt he had been given a little too much to do. Sadly injury blighted the rest of his career, and we probably never saw the best of Dunguib.

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The last three winners of the Deloitte have all been trained by Willie Mullins. Champagne Fever and Vautour took the race on the way to Cheltenham glory in the Supreme. Last year it was Nichols Canyon who impressed in the Leopardstown showpiece before heading to The Festival to contest the Neptune. A change of tactics were employed to ensure he stayed the extended trip, but he finished only third and in hindsight probably ran far too keenly under restraint.

And so to Saturday’s renewal which looks to have attracted another classy line-up. Sure to be run in testing conditions with further heavy rain forecast, Willie Mullins looks set to unleash Bellshill; so far undefeated over hurdles. Owned by Andrea and Graham Wylie, the six-year-old has looked convincing thus far, though the form of his three hurdles victories is somewhat underwhelming. This will undoubtedly be his biggest test to date, and a clash with Yanworth looms on the horizon.

Tombstone looks to be the main challenger tomorrow having run a cracker in defeat at Christmas behind Long Dog in the Future Champions. Trainer Gordon Elliott appeared pretty bullish when writing in his BoyleSports blog: “He's in great form ahead of his run in the Grade 1 Deloitte Novice Hurdle. We're really excited about running him; it's going to be a great race. Willie will probably have two, we'll have one and there'll be a few others. I really think the trip will suit and the ground will suit him so with a bit of luck, he'll do it.”

Sporting the familiar Gigginstown silks, he’s by Robin Des Champs, and as such may well appreciate better ground at Cheltenham should this rain ever stop.

Willie Mullins appears less likely to run Yorkhill, but looks sure to let his Gigginstown contender Petit Mouchoir take his chance. He was less than a length behind Tombstone at Christmas and is likely to be in the shake-up again. Brian Cooper has chosen to ride Elliott’s contender, and the money has come for him during the week.

Though Mullins and Elliott appear to have the race between them, there has been support for the Edward Harty trained Coney Island. He took a maiden hurdle at Christmas and though impressive on that occasion this is a much tougher ask. By Flemensfirth out of a Milan mare, I’d be surprised if he has the gears needed to win this.

For some an encounter with Min awaits at Cheltenham, and for others Yanworth looms large at The Festival. However, for now the focus is to win one of the most prestigious novice hurdles; a race with a rich history and illustrious roll of honour.

Halling Progeny Have Both Codes Covered

I was sad to hear yesterday of the death of Halling. He was very much a Godolphin great, both on the racecourse and as a successful stallion.

He passed away at Dalham Hall Stud on Tuesday at the grand old age of 25. Trainer Saeed Bin Suroor said of the loss: “It's very sad news. Halling did a great job both for Godolphin and Darley. He won five Group 1s for us, two of them in his first year and then three more in his second. He was a great stallion too. Everybody loved him at Godolphin and Darley, and so did Sheikh Mohammed. He was one of our best horses and it's like losing a friend, but he lived a long and happy life and there are still some babies of his to look forward to.”

Halling started out under the guidance of John Gosden and developed into a quality handicapper at three, winning the Cambridgeshire. He moved to Saeed Bin Suroor at four and quickly established himself as a Group 1 performer. He took the Eclipse at Sandown and followed that with victory in the International Stakes at York. As a five-year-old he took the Group 1 Prix d’Ispahan at Longchamp before repeating his wins in the Eclipse and International.

In a stunning race career he won a dozen of his 18 starts, amassing over $1,300,000. His career at stud was also an impressive one. Halling had a reputation for producing classy stayers. Cavalryman and Opinion Poll are two perfect examples, though the former had enough class to run third in an Arc. The Geezer was another strong stayer on the Flat, finishing second to Scorpion in the St Leger of 2005.

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During the most recent Flat campaign we witnessed the rise of the latest Halling star. Jack Hobbs finished second in the Epsom Derby before group 1 success came in the Irish equivalent at The Curragh. Trained like his sire by John Gosden, the huge colt is expected to improve further as a four-year-old and is set to carry the Halling name to further group success. At the end of his latest terrific Flat campaign Gosden said of Jack Hobbs: “He is a next year horse, his dad got good at four and five. If you had told me this horse would do what he has done already I would be blown away.”

Halling also proved his worth as a stallion in the National Hunt sphere. Crow Wood was a classy two-mile hurdler for John Quinn, and won the Elite Hurdle at Wincanton back in 2006. All Yours is a recent addition to the Jumps fraternity. He won the Grade 1 Juvenile Hurdle at Aintree last April. Rayvin Black is another exciting offspring. He chased home The New One at Haydock last time out, and looks capable of winning a valuable handicap before the season is over.

Deep Purple was the most successful of the Halling progeny over obstacles. Trained by Evan Williams, he won numerous graded events over fences including the Charlie Hall at Wetherby, and the Peterborough Chase at Huntingdon. He also finished fourth in a Ryanair at The Festival.

The latest horse of interest taking to the larger obstacles is trained in Ireland. Zabana was runner-up in last year’s Coral Cup at Cheltenham and in recent days has been heavily backed for the JLT in March. I’m not convinced he’s good enough to win that particular race, but he will undoubtedly pay his way over fences and will be at his best on decent ground.

Whilst racing mourns the loss of Halling, his legacy appears to be a strong one. Both racing codes appear to be covered, with the likes of Yanworth and Jack Hobbs sure to bring further success the way of the Godolphin great.

Yanworth success great news for High-Flying Yorton

Alan King’s novice hurdler Yanworth proved one of the stars of Trials Day at Cheltenham.

His success was great news for the trainer and connections, but also for the Yorton Farm Stud, home to Norse Dancer, the sire of the talented young hurdler. A dual group winner and runner-up in three Group 1’s, he is still a relative newcomer to the breeding game. Nevertheless, he is making quite an impact, providing bumper winners for Willie Mullins and Nicky Henderson and now producing his most exciting National Hunt runner in Yanworth.

Big, strong and very athletic are typically words used for Norse Dancer offspring, and that’s certainly the case with King's Cheltenham winner, who now looks the one to beat at the Festival in March.

Yorton Farm is very much the new kid on the block when it comes to the stud industry. Based at Leighton Farm near Welshpool, in 300 acres of the most beautiful Powys countryside, Yorton has become one Britain’s fastest growing breeding operations. Run by the husband and wife team David and Teresa Futter, it’s very much a family affair.

They have quickly gathered a group of top-quality stallions and are dynamic in their approach. Indeed, the arrival of Coronation Cup Group 1 winner Pether’s Moon and the young French National Hunt stallion Blue Bresil, is evidence of their ambition in the industry. The latter has joined the stud from Haras de la Croix Sonnet where he had already sired the likes of Ibis De Rheu, Bol D'Air and Le Prezien.

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Blue Bresil appears to fit the Yorton blueprint of the perfect stallion. He is already renowned for producing precocious young jumpers who have size and athleticism. He was a Group 2 performer on the flat in France, and hit similar lofty heights over the jumps.

“It is our on-going aim to build a stallion roster that delivers choice to both the commercial breeder and those who breed for the love of National Hunt," said the ambitious owner David Futter. “We’ve been fortunate to secure two top-quality young stallions in Pether’s Moon and Blue Bresil, who we hope will both have exciting futures and further extend the choice available to the British Breeder.”

Anthony Bromley from Highflyer Bloodstock also appears excited at the progress being made by the UK stud, saying: “Blue Bresil’s first crop of four-year-olds has really impressed and I have purchased five so far who are above average performers. He is a major coup for the British National Hunt Stallion industry and he has been brought over at the perfect time for British Breeders to capitalise on this.”

All this has come about from the humblest of beginnings when foaling mares for nearby contacts. The business quickly expanded and the move to Leighton Farm took place towards the end of 2013. Futter was originally an equine dentist and worked part-time at various studs in Shropshire.

The enterprise is not exclusively National Hunt driven, with the owners still willing to take horses from the flat. Sulamani is a successful stallion on the roster capable of producing quality over the jumps and on the flat. Rule The World is one such offspring who has already been runner-up at the Cheltenham Festival, whilst Mastery won the St Leger back in 2009.

Gentlewave is another popular inmate, imported from France to Yorton in 2015. The son of Monsun won the Italian Derby and finished runner-up to Dylan Thomas in the Irish equivalent. Pearl Swan has proved the most successful Jumps progeny to date, but the Neil Mulholland trained Pinkie Brown is also making an impact as a juvenile hurdler, and may well take his place in the Fred winter next month. Futter and his team will be confident of many more to come from this powerfully built stallion.

With top-class facilities, quality stock, and all set in magnificent Powys countryside, this is a business flourishing at a rate of knots. Exciting times lie ahead for Yorton Farm Stud.